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Social entrepreneurs share hardheaded business lessons

“Big isn’t just big. Big is different,” observed Jill Vialet, a social entrepreneur describing the challenges she faced in growing her nonprofit and comparing them to issues for-profit businesses confront.

Playworks, the nonprofit Vialet founded, puts “coaches” in urban elementary schools in the Oakland-San Francisco area who coordinate lunchtime and recess activities and re-introduce physical education into the classroom. She had received a multimillion-dollar grant to expand Playworks to three other cities.

But Vialet concluded that her mostly volunteer staff, while dedicated to Playworks’ mission, lacked the expertise to manage growth. Realizing that she was at risk of failing, she hired professional staff that the organization needed in information technology, finance and human resources.

She also persuaded the board to let her hire an executive director to run the day-to-day operations so she could focus on the expansion. “Who knew management was a real thing?” she asked tongue-in-cheek.

Mixing business and social problems
Vialet, along with fellow social entrepreneur Andy Lipkis, was in the Twin Cities recently to share her experiences with local social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders at the first-ever Ashoka Twin Cities Solutions Forum,which exploredhow business principles can be applied to solve social problems,” according to the group’s invitation.

Playworks made the transition and received additional funding to continue its growth. The nonprofit now serves 100,000 kids in 250 schools across 27 cities, including five schools in St. Paul that launched the program this past September. Vialet has plans to eventually expand to 1,000 schools, she said.

But the transition has had its costs as well, she admitted. Some longtime colleagues accused her of being on “Jill’s ego trip”as she professionalized the staff. “I lost four good friends” because of the rift, she said.

Vialet advised the audience to think like businesspeople before committing to a growth strategy, saying they should be able to answer a few questions. While she said her passion is “play,” she can speak to her customers to meet their needs:

”What’s my customer buying? Is it replicable? Do I have the structure and leadership to grow?”

 “I have a cost-effective solution to the principals’ group management problem at lunch time and recess,” she said, describing her business model. “The movement I’m building is about education reform. I have a business, and I’m also trying to build a movement.”

Her final bit of advice to the would-be social entrepreneurs: Be confident and “fake it till you make it.”

A different approach
For his part, Lipkis said his organization, TreePeople, “inspires, engages and supports people to take personal responsibility for the urban environment” by planting trees around the greater Los Angeles area. Lipkis founded the organization 40 years ago, as a teenager concerned that smog was killing off the area’s surrounding forests.

L.A. as “a very, very dangerous ecosystem for the world,” Lipkis declared, noting that it is the largest user of electricity in the state of California, primarily to bring water to the area. 

“One agency pays a billion dollars to bring in water. Another agency spends half-a-billion dollars to throw it away” while a third agency spends $100 million to get rid of “green waste, yard clippings, leaves...  mulch that captures and conserves water.”  The different agencies don’t talk to one another, he said, because “they have different missions.”

“There’s a hemorrhage of resource opportunity in every direction,” he said. “The end result is ... pain all around, chronic unemployment, a very toxic city.

“I strive to connect the dots. Now it’s connecting the budgets ... to lead a change outside of politics. We’re literally creating a market for policy change,” he added, where public awareness and pressure “make it safe for politicians to follow.”

Lipkis’s organization has planted millions of trees, received international recognition for finding new paths and creating spin-off conservation and reforestation efforts throughout the Los Angeles area.

Both entrepreneurs talked about the importance of focus but had different approaches. Unlike Playworks, which focuses on one customer (elementary schools) but with ambitious multi-city growth plans, Tree People focuses exclusively on transforming greater Los Angeles,  but through connecting multiple customers across political, community and bureaucratic boundaries to find common interests.

Lipkis said his work is “very definitively entrepreneurial ... I found a void and filled it.” But the payback is not monetary, he said. Instead, he finds reward in indentifying a social need and responding. “There is a core something that drives us to do what we do. It feels bad if I don’t respond,” he added.

For a video interview with Playworks founder Jill Vialet, go here.

For a video interview with TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, go here.

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